Self and character

While doing her fieldwork among the Makassar, a people living on the peninsula of  Sulawesi, Indonesia who are ‘renowned” for their seafaring and fishing skill, Birgit Roettger-Roessler noticed that her informants were uneasy when asked to tell about themselves, and when they did, they told her narratively thin stories about what they did – not why they did it, or what they felt. On the other hand, she found that the Makassar enjoyed gossiping about each other. Roettger-Roessler was disappointed by this state of affairs at first, as the standard notion in the eighties, when she did her fieldwork, was that first person accounts were  more reliable –more authentic. Gossip, however, is, she presumes, the stock that fills up many an ethnographer’s notebook.

However, as she reflected on this curious situation, she noticed that other anthropologists also reported that first-person autobiographical accounts were difficult to get from informants all over the South Pacific, and in Africa. And she concludes, as other anthropologists were also concluding at the time, that there is something very “Western” about first person life stories. This is a large  conclusion pinned to a small reference: St. Augustine’s Confessions. This reference is, I think, itself very Western – the idea that a book has an impact over a thousand and a half years, changing the narrative taboos of ordinary people all over Europe and beyond, rests on a very vague kind of intellectual history.

However, Roettger-Roessler’s work with the Makassar eventually forced her to consider the notes she was putting in her fieldwork journal, where it turned out that there were plenty of life-histories at second hand. The Makassar gossiped. They also would tell about themselves in certain triangulated situations – in ordinary conversation, for instance.

All of these fragments are gathered together under the form of theses about person and self, which define the cosmology eighties anthropologists were interested in. It is interesting that character no longer carries any conceptual weight in this discourse, even though, as late as the nineteen fifties, anthropologists were willing to speak of ethnic ‘characters’, or individual characters within a group. And yet it doesn’t seem that what is being narrated in gossip and rumor, or told in pieces in conversation, among the Makassar is an account of the person or self. Rather, what seems to apply are the traits that character coordinates. Joseph Ewen, an Israeli literary scholar, has proposed that character is a matter of three axes: complexity (of traits), development (action of some kind) and penetration into the interior life (words involving cognitive and affective states). These axes are of use in narration. Outside of narration, they are senseless.

Is there character, then, outside of the text?